It took only minutes Thursday for the state House to override a veto by Gov. Pat McCrory and immediately enact a new law that allows certain county officials to avoid same-sex marriage duties if they invoke “any sincerely held religious objection.”
Opponents said efforts to stop the law, which applies to magistrates and registers of deeds employees statewide, will be lasting. Work to mount legal challenges was underway as North Carolina joined Utah as the only states with a marriage duty “religious objection” law.
McCrory expressed discouragement, issuing a statement that criticized the override – and how it was handled by fellow Republicans in the House.
“It’s a disappointing day for the rule of law and the process of passing legislation in North Carolina,” the governor said.
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Republican supporters said they stood up for religious freedom and they noted the law requires that county officials must provide marriage services for all at least 10 hours per week over at least three business days.
The law was written and backed by the leader of the state Senate, Phil Berger, an Eden Republican, who had said it was a necessary response to court rulings last year that allowed same-sex marriage and then administrative decisions that punished county magistrates who refused to perform them.
The law says magistrates can now recuse themselves from performing all marriages and that assistant and deputy registers of deeds can opt out of issuing any marriage licenses. The recusals can occur at any time but must be in effect for a period of at least six months. Debate on the issue this session had centered on same-sex marriages, though the law does not specify a type of marriage for recusals.
A handful of magistrates had resigned over the issue. If any are reappointed, the new law includes a provision that restores ongoing benefits as if they had been serving all along.
McCrory vetoed the bill on May 28, saying “we are a nation and a state of laws” and that no public official should be exempt from his constitutional duties.
The Senate overrode the veto by a wide margin. But the votes in the House were much closer, and members there openly acknowledged an override, which requires three-fifths of those present and voting, was uncertain.
At the time of the vote Thursday, 110 of the 120 House members were present, meaning 66 votes were needed to pass the override. The vote was 69-41.
Based on past votes and interviews, it appears the outcome would not have changed if the absent 10 lawmakers had voted as expected.
“Thank you to House members for voting their conscience,” Berger wrote on Twitter, noting the law “protects First Amendment religious freedom (and) preserves ability to marry granted under law.”
Tami Fitzgerald, executive director of the N.C. Values Coalition, which lobbied for the bill and the veto override, took aim at McCrory.
“We’re elated that the legislature has shown leadership in protecting religious freedom for the citizens of North Carolina,” she said. “We think that any governor who calls himself conservative shouldn’t veto a bill that protects the religious freedom of his constituents.”
It is the second veto override this session. Lawmakers previously overturned a McCrory veto of an employee workplace bill, which the governor said didn’t protect whistleblowers.
Democrats complained that Republicans sprang an “ambush” vote without proper notice and then flexed their majority-control by using a legislative procedure to prevent any debate on the floor.
House Democratic Leader Larry Hall, a Durham lawyer, said individuals, such as same-sex couples who wanted to get married and are refused, and advocacy groups would both have the legal standing to sue.
Local officials in Chapel Hill and Orange County condemned the vote. The ACLU invited same-sex couples to report if they “encounter new hurdles.”
Chris Sgro, executive director of Equality N.C., said his organization and others were meeting Thursday afternoon to discuss a legal strategy and that they would move quickly.
“We don’t think the legislation is constitutional, as the intent is clearly to discriminate against LGBT North Carolinians,” Sgro said.
Democrats gathered immediately after the vote to voice concern.
“We know what’s going to happen,” Rep. Susan Fisher, an Asheville Democrat, said at a news conference. “This will go to court, just like so many of the bills we have seen from the other side and again, and taxpayer money will be used to defend North Carolinians in this state from the bad legislation coming from the other side.”
Speaking to reporters after the vote, House Speaker Tim Moore defended the Republican leadership’s decision to prevent debate on the floor Thursday. He said the bill had been debated thoroughly in committees and previously on the floor when it passed in May, also by a close margin.
“At this stage of the game, folks know how they’re going to vote,” Moore said.
Three Democrats supported the bill. Three Republicans broke ranks and opposed it.
Three Republicans were absent who had all previously opposed the bill, including Rep. Charles Jeter of Huntersville. He said a stomach bug forced him to stay home.
“If I thought my vote would have made the difference, I would have found a way to be there and push the button,” he said, adding that he still opposes it. “I wasn’t trying to duck the vote.”
Rep. Jon Hardister, a Republican from Greensboro who also previously opposed the bill, said he took a leave of absence to deal with a personal matter. Like Jeter, he said he had no notification the vote would be taken Thursday.
“The speaker said the he would call the question when he thought the votes were there, and that is what happened,” Hardister said in an email.
After the vote, freshman Democratic Rep. Cecil Brockman of Greensboro rose on the House floor and began to speak: “I want to apologize to all our gay and lesbian couples in North Carolina,” he said.
Moore immediately gaveled him out of order and didn’t allow him to finish. Asked about it later, Brockman said as a first-term representative he didn’t know what was proper, but that his reaction was human.
“I just wanted to say and remind everybody what we are talking about is love, and what we just did is try to discriminate against it,” he said.
Rep. Paul Luebke, a Durham Democrat, said his fears were broader, expressing concern about a possible impact on the state’s reputation and ability to attract jobs.
“Global corporations go where they want to go in the United States,” Luebke said. “We’ve sent a message that we’re in favor of inequality and that we are not a tolerant state.”
Republicans emphasized the new protections for magistrates. The majority leader in the House, Mike Hager, said the override “stands for religious freedom.”
“It does not discriminate against anyone for any reason,” Hager said. “It simply gives protection to our magistrates and registers of deeds so that they are not forced to perform an act that they have a sincere religious objection to.”
Sen. Ronald Rabin, a Republican whose district includes Harnett and Lee counties and part of Johnston County, summed that view up on Twitter.
“Today,” Rabin wrote, “is a win for anyone who supports religious freedom.”
Staff writer Taylor Knopf contributed to this report.
Victory for supporters of the law to allow magistrates and registers of deeds employees to opt out of marriage duties promised Thursday to spawn several legal issues that are expected to lead to court reviews.
The possibility of an override was published on the House official calendar for days. But Democrats say House rules required a more specific two-day notice before the override vote could be taken. They also contend that overrides have to be considered promptly after vetoes and not set aside for some unspecified future date.
The veto by Gov. Pat McCrory was on May 28.
State law says the legislature must “proceed to reconsider” vetoed bills, leaving enough room for lawyers to argue about the definition of “proceed.” The vetoed Senate Bill 2 was parked in the House for about a week before Thursday’s override.
The question of how promptly veto overrides must be taken remains unsettled. The House parked five vetoed bills for lengthy periods – some more than a year – in recent years without taking action on them.
One had taken away automatic dues deductions for the state’s teachers’ association. The N.C. Association of Educators sued the legislature in a constitutional challenge to its failure to take the override vote promptly and for retaliating against it because it supported Democrats.
A Wake County Superior Court judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the law from going into effect, based on the delayed veto issue. In December 2012, the lawsuit was settled in the teachers’ favor, but on the ground that the law was retaliatory discrimination for an opposing viewpoint.
Besides those procedural issues, opponents said they are focused on the fundamental purpose of the bill, which they say would allow unconstitutional discrimination against based on sexual preference.
Staff writer Craig Jarvis